Tell us something about yourself.

I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia, but by nationality I am Syrian. At the age of 25, I decided to leave Saudi Arabia and travel to Russia in search of better opportunities. I completed my Master’s degree at MIPT in Moscow and now I am starting my PhD at ITMO.

Have you been to Syria?

I have been to Syria a few times. We used to visit our relatives who live there during our summer vacations. However, after 2010, we stopped traveling there. We still have a few relatives there but we are not in touch massively.

How did it feel to grow up in Saudi Arabia?

I have spent all my life in Saudi Arabia as a foreigner. This limited my opportunities as a student and also while looking for jobs. There is a policy in Saudi Arabia which says that every corporation must always maintain a ratio of 1:3 of foreign to local employees. This massively reduces the number of available opportunities for foreigners. Also, I am a very sporty person, but we don’t always have the freedom to pursue such hobbies openly in Saudi Arabia. Thus, I have felt quite restricted all my life until I came to Russia.

Did you look for jobs in Saudi Arabia?

I did! After graduating from my Bachelor’s program, I spent around eight months applying for different kinds of jobs. I had the skills to teach the Holy Quran, Arabic, English, and karate, but I could not find a job anywhere. Also, foreigners need to be sponsored to work in Saudi Arabia, which makes things even more difficult. After failing to find a suitable job, I decided to avail myself of the Russian government scholarship and come to Russia for higher education. It was the best decision of my life because I feel like my life has just started.

What were the factors that motivated you to come to Russia?

For me, there were numerous reasons. Besides the usual academic and career benefits, I was impelled to come to Russia for its open-mindedness. In Saudi Arabia, there are a lot of taboos and misconceptions around dating and romance. I felt like I was not allowed to lead a life of my liking. It really suffocated me. Coming to a country like Russia really allowed me to freely live a life that I want for myself without worrying about anyone or anything. 

What was your Master’s program at MIPT?

My Master’s studies were in medical biotechnology. I learned about the applications of biotechnology in healthcare and disease treatment. Now, I am trying to use that knowledge – along with the concepts of microbiology and organic chemistry – to develop improved food materials.

Abdullah graduated with a Master’s degree from MIPT this year and is now a PhD student at ITMO. Photo courtesy of the subject

Abdullah graduated with a Master’s degree from MIPT this year and is now a PhD student at ITMO. Photo courtesy of the subject

Is that what your PhD thesis will be about?

My PhD research is about developing ways to improve the quality and shelf life of food using biologically active elements.

You study at the Faculty of Biotechnologies. What excites you about this field of study?

I wasn’t always an admirer of this field. After graduating from high school, I took a gap year and then I enrolled myself in a university that offered a course in medical laboratory practices. I wanted to go for medicine, but, again, opportunities in Saudi Arabia were very few. Slowly, I ended up liking this subject because through it, I could help human beings and solve their problems. That motivated me to keep studying biotechnology. When I came across the PhD program in food biotechnology at ITMO, I got really interested in it. Since I am an athletic person, I have always been interested in nutrition and diet. 

How does it feel to be an ITMO student?

My feelings have been mixed. On one hand, I felt really disappointed when I was ignored by the members of one of the student clubs. However, on the other hand, I was really welcomed by the cheerleading club of ITMO. They were really impressed with my skills and the fact that I was a part of MIPT's cheerleading team as well. Also, my supervisor is a very nice person. She warmly welcomed me to her lab and it felt really great.

You have been to both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Which city do you prefer?

This is a question that I get asked a lot. I know many people like St. Petersburg more because of its architecture and museums but such things don’t excite me. Therefore, I prefer Moscow. Also, in Moscow you can find many more open-air gyms and parks compared to St. Petersburg. This is an important factor for someone like me who is a fitness freak. 

But St. Petersburg also has its advantages. I can ride a bike here freely, unlike in Moscow, where I had to depend mostly on the metro for my commute. Moreover, I have heard that the lifestyle of people here in St. Petersburg is more relaxed and calm. While it is too early for me to comment on that, I think it is a true observation up to some extent.

Have you taken a liking towards Russian food?

Surprisingly, even after living in Russia for almost 2 years, I don’t remember a single instance when I tried Russian food. I usually cook my own meals. And when I can’t, I eat out. Mostly, I eat burgers and pizzas. Nowadays, I am eating out a lot because I haven’t properly settled in yet. I am planning to buy a refrigerator and then I will store all the necessary ingredients to cook my own food here.

How did you accustom yourself to the cold weather?

I like to challenge myself and it in turn helps me get stronger. One day, when it was -15℃ in Moscow, I went out wearing only a thin summer shirt! People thought I was crazy. It impacted my body hard, but after that day, I got accustomed to the cold. But I don’t encourage others to do this because I could feel the injuries and trauma that my body suffered because of this stunt. 

What are the places that you really liked in Russia?

I don’t really find it interesting to visit places. But somehow, when I visited the Kremlin with a girl I was dating, I ended up really enjoying the place. Not the building but the vibe. It was an unusual experience for me. Maybe it was the history of the place or the presence of the girl that moved me.

“I love meeting new people and making friends,” says Abdullah. Photo courtesy of the subject

“I love meeting new people and making friends,” says Abdullah. Photo courtesy of the subject

What are your plans for now?

I have started teaching English and Arabic online. I will surely be devoting most of my time to research. In addition to that, I will be involved in cheerleading and playing volleyball. I am a very productive person and I like doing things. Watching movies or reading books doesn’t really excite me. However, I know it is important to read books and I am trying to develop this habit.

Would you like to give any advice to future international students?

I would recommend everyone to learn the local language even before coming to Russia. Because most of the time, the stipend that you receive from the university won't be sufficient. And to get a part-time job, you will definitely need a strong command of Russian. Also, be prepared to not find a lot of things that you are used to having in your country. For instance, spices will be really hard to find here in Russia.